Weekly dilemma: women-only recruitment drive

Q Our construction company has a mostly male workforce. To improve diversity, we want to initially invite women only for our next recruitment drive. Is there a way to do that under the equality umbrella?

A The Equality Bill has been making its way through parliament since April 2009 and will most likely become law in April of this year, with many of the provisions taking effect later in October. The Bill aims to consolidate existing discrimination and equal pay legislation into a single Equality Act. Much of the existing legislation is replicated, but the Bill does introduce some important changes that are directly relevant to this question. Perhaps the most dramatic introduction is that positive action will be allowed in recruitment and promotion policies.

This will mean that your company can choose a candidate from a disadvantaged or under-represented group in the workforce in the event of a tie-breaking situation between equally qualified candidates. For example, if a man and a woman apply for the same position within your company, the woman could be successful in a predominately male company like yours.

However, any candidate should be recruited and promoted on merit and should your company choose to take on a candidate simply because they are from an under-represented group, this will remain unlawful. Your intention to invite women only for your next recruitment drive is therefore discriminatory.

There are steps that your company can take without breaking the law. For example, your company has always been allowed to take positive action to redress the imbalance in the workforce; therefore a straightforward way of implementing such action is to advertise the jobs through a medium most likely to be read by the under-represented group, in this case women.

We will have to wait and see if the new Bill will make any practical difference to companies like yours. It is highly unlikely that as an employer you will be faced with two candidates for a job who are matched in every single way save for their gender or skin colour. Many businesses are likely to continue as they have always done so. The Bill may, however, lead to an increase in claims from non-minority employees who are passed over for promotion, but this is a matter for further debate.

Ben Williams, barrister at Kings Chambers, Manchester and Leeds

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